Owen Sowerwine Natural Area Gains Permanent Protection

Located at the confluence of the Flathead and Stillwater rivers east of Kalispell, the 405-acre wetland will generate income for Montana’s schools under a conservation easement held by Flathead Land Trust

By Tristan Scott
Channels of the Flathead River as seen from above Leisure Island Park in Kalispell on June 9, 2020. The Owen Sowerwine natural area can be seen to the north of the cleared stretch of land. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

After years of collaboration between nonprofit organizations and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), a half-century old dream was realized this week when the Flathead Land Trust announced the permanent protection of the Owen Sowerwine Natural Area, a 405-acre mosaic of wetlands, riverine forest, and meandering waterways connecting the Flathead and Stillwater rivers east of Kalispell.

Nearly 50 years ago, a resident named Owen Sowerwine dreamed of safeguarding the ecological gem, which provides habitat for more than 150 species of birds, as well as federally listed species such as grizzly bears and bull trout.

“This week, that vision blossomed into reality,” according to a statement on Thursday from the Flathead Land Trust, which partnered with the Flathead Audubon Society, Flathead Lakers and the DNRC to raise funds for the purchase of a conservation easement that both protects the ecologically rich parcel while generating income for Montana’s schools.

The Montana State Board of Land Commissioners granted unanimous approval to the Owen Sowerwine conservation easement last December, clearing a path to Thursday’s formal announcement.

Darren Pfeifle and his son Greyson walk along the ADA accessible trail at the Owen Sowerwine Natural Area. Beacon file photo

Located in the heart of one of the most complex sections of the Flathead River, amid intertwined channels, islands, sloughs, wetlands and riparian forest, Owen Sowerwine borders more than a mile of the Flathead River, a mile of the Stillwater River and at least 1.3 miles of interlaced channels connecting the two rivers.

In recent years, the special recreational-use licenses guaranteeing public access and habitat protection to the area have been issued in two-year increments by the DNRC, casting uncertainty over the long-term future of Owen Sowerwine and prompting the Flathead Land Trust to lay plans to furnish permanent protections on the natural area, which is managed as State School Trust Land.

Recently, the Flathead Land Trust offered to purchase a conservation easement agreement on Owen Sowerwine, fulfilling DNRC’s monetary mission to the School Trust in exchange for its protection from development in perpetuity.

“The community rose to the occasion,” according to Flathead Land Trust Executive Director Paul Travis, who explained that an outpouring of more than 300 individual donations helped build off the fundraising momentum ignited by grants and larger contributions from foundations. When a final grant proposal was unsuccessful, Whitefish philanthropists Jim and Lisa Stack donated generously to close the funding gap, Travis said.

“Through tireless efforts, dedicated partners, and many generous donors, the easement was secured for $970,000, which will be invested in the State School Trust Fund, supporting education for years to come,” according to the announcement.

Montana State Trust Land known as the Owen Sowerwine shown highlighted in blue near Kalispell on this map from Montana Cadastral.

“Owen Sowerwine’s dream for this land, envisioned five decades ago, has become a lasting reality – a vibrant haven for wildlife and a cherished community resource,” the Flathead Land Trust announcement states. “Ownership will remain with the state, while Flathead Audubon Society will continue its passionate stewardship of resources and educational programs, as it has for many years. Public access will continue, and Owen Sowerwine’s legacy will live on.”

Major funding for the project was provided by the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust; The Kendeda Fund and Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation through the Heart of the Rockies Initiative; Whitefish Community Foundation; North American Wetland Conservation Act Grant; Flathead River to Lake Initiative; High Stakes Foundation; Cinnabar Foundation; Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Wildlife Mitigation Program and several smaller grants. Individual donations from Jim and Lisa Stack, James Hollensteiner, Molly Miller and Mark Jungerman, Lauren Pipkorn, Thomas and Teresa Quinn, Carol Bibler and Jim Watson, Lynda Saul, Michael Russell and Sally Cameron-Russell, Julie Baldridge, Alan and Sallie Gratch, and the Sowerwine family, among many other community members, were instrumental in bringing this project to fruition.

To learn more about this project and for a full list of donors, please visit https://www.flatheadlandtrust.org. To learn more about visiting Owen Sowerwine, explore https://flatheadaudubon.org/conserve/owen-sowerwine/.